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Informing Families is Best Defense Against Bird Flu

While Human Cases are Rare, Children are Heavily Impacted by the Disease

NEW YORK/GENEVA, 24 February, 2006 – Preventing the spread of avian influenza depends on getting critical information to families and children urgently, UNICEF said today. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNICEF works with the government and its partners to minimize the risk of the epidemic.

“While human avian influenza is still rare, the family is the first line of defense against a possible pandemic brought on by this highly mobile threat,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said Tuesday, noting that children have been heavily impacted by avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu.

Although lately we are very often hearing that in Bosnia and Herzegovina the risk of avian flu doesn't exist, it is simply a denial of the problem.  The risk is here now, and it increases if people - especially children who care for and play with chickens - are not informed how to prevent it. Only when we are sure that every family in this country knows how to protect itself against the bird flu, we will be able to talk about minimal risk. In order to achieve this, UNICEF will support official institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, using the successful experiences and lessons learned from other countries where a similar campaign has been conducted to inform the population about the risks and prevention,” said Helena Eversole, UNICEF Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Children account for nearly half (45 percent) of reported human cases of avian influenza, according to data from six of the seven countries that have confirmed human cases. (Data on children is not available from Vietnam, which has reported 93 human cases).

One reason children may be at risk for infection is that children, especially girls, often care for domestic poultry by feeding them, cleaning pens and gathering eggs. Children may also have closer contact with poultry as they often treat them as pets.

“It is imperative that families are provided with accessible information about personal hygiene and how they handle birds,” said Veneman.

Families need to know the importance of:

  • reporting sick or dead birds to the local authorities; 
  • keeping birds away from children and living areas;
  • washing your hands often with soap and water to kill and remove the virus;
  • eating only fully-cooked poultry

Veneman said that while the greatest current threat of avian flu is to the agricultural sector, children are impacted in a variety of ways.

“Outbreaks of avian flu among domestic birds mean that families lose an important source of food and income,” said Veneman.  “This can affect children’s health and threaten their access to education. When income drops dramatically, families sometimes can’t afford to send their children to school or pay for essential health services.”

David Nabarro, United Nations Systems Influenza Coordinator, said that preventing the spread of avian flu requires making sure that families at risk have both information and economic support.

"Preventing pandemic and mitigating current economic losses requires collaboration and commitment from everyone – international organizations, governments, the private sector, the media and local communities," Nabarro said. "Families at risk have the right to expect no less of us."

  Under the technical leadership of WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UNICEF is working closely with governments to arm families with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and their birds from avian influenza.

UNICEF is harnessing its extensive on-the-ground networks to deliver critical life-saving messages:

  • In Turkey, where the four resulting deaths from avian influenza were children, UNICEF has activated a 150,000-strong team of volunteers for girls’ education to help spread prevention messages on avian influenza.
  • In Vietnam and Cambodia, an intensive mass media campaign is underway to provide the public with key facts on avian influenza prevention.
  • In Nigeria, UNICEF is working with an existing network of traditional and religious leaders to reach the most remote communities with preventive messages.

Since 2003, the H5N1 avian influenza virus has spread from Asia to Europe and the Middle East and now to Africa, affecting nearly 30 countries.  Over 140 million domestic birds have been destroyed at an estimated cost of over US $10 billion.



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